MOUNT VERNON – Jonathan Tazewell has been living in Knox County for nearly 40 years.
But he still doesn’t feel fully accepted in the community.
GALLERY: 17th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Breakfast
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Committee hosted its 17th annual MLK Celebration Breakfast on Monday, Jan. 20 at Mount Vernon Nazarene University's Foster Hall. Community members gathered to honor King's legacy and reflect on his mission.
“I’ve been making this community the place that I have lived longest in my life. It is my home,” he told the crowd at the 17th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast on Monday. “But it sometimes feels ironic to me, since I often, after these many years, still feel like an outsider.”
Tazewell is a black man in a county where less than three percent of its residents are people of color. Despite his history here – he’s taught at Kenyon College since 1997 and is well-known for his work as an actor, director and writer – he feels apart from the rest of his community. He doesn’t face this reality alone, he says.
“It is unfortunately an irony that many American people of color face, not only in their local communities, but throughout our nation,” Tazewell said. “Though most of us have known no other country to call our home, the recognition of our full citizenship in this nation, both legal and emotional, has been a continual battle waged by the proud and the righteous. I count you, my friends, among those warriors.”
Tazewell shared his perspective as the keynote speaker at Monday’s breakfast, hosted by Mount Vernon Nazarene University and organized by the Dr. King Legacy Committee. The annual ceremony is meant to honor King’s legacy and reflect on his mission.
King, a social activist and Baptist minister from Atlanta, played a key role in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. At age 35, he was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. He advocated for racial equality and social justice in a time where little could be found.
On Monday, Tazewell offered a message of hope during his time on the podium. He read from a sermon given by King on May 17, 1956 in New York, titled, ‘The Death of Evil Upon the Seashore.’
The sermon was given on the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to end school segregation – Brown v. Board of Education. In his speech, King relates the fleeing of another oppressed and enslaved people, the Israelites, in their escape from Egypt, to the plight of African-Americans, who have long faced similar isolation within the United States.
“Though three-quarters of a century have passed since Brown v. Board of Education, we are still faced with structural racism and discriminating evil,” Tazewell said. “But Dr. King offers us hope in this sermon.”
In his sermon, King argues that “there is hardly anything more obvious than the fact that evil is present in the universe. It projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles into every level of human existence. We may debate over the origin of evil, but only the person victimized with a superficial optimism will debate over its reality. Evil is with us as a stark, grim, and colossal reality.”
He says that “the whole history of life is the history of a struggle between good and evil. There seems to be a tension at the very core of the universe.”
However, he also contends that good will ultimately win.
“Biblical religion recognized long ago what William Cullen Bryant came to see in the modern world: ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again;’” King quipped, “and what Carlyle came to see: ‘No lie can live forever.’”
King references a Biblical passage that details the early history of the Hebrew people, when the children of Israel were enslaved by Egyptians.
“Egypt was the symbol of evil in the form of humiliating oppression, ungodly exploitation and crushing domination. The Israelites symbolized goodness, in the form of devotion and dedication to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” King said.
“These two forces were in a continual struggle against each other – Egypt struggling to maintain her oppressive yoke and Israel struggling to gain freedom from this yoke. Finally, however, these Israelites, through the providence of God, were able to cross the Red Sea, and thereby get out of the hands of Egyptian rule.
“The Egyptians, in a desperate attempt to prevent the Israelites from escaping, had their armies to go in the Red Sea behind them. But as soon as the Egyptians got into the Red Sea the parted waves swept back upon them, and the rushing waters of the sea soon drowned all of them. As the Israelites looked back all they could see was here and there a poor drowned body beaten upon the seashore.
“For the Israelites, this was a great moment. It was the end of a frightful period in their history. It was a joyous daybreak that had come to end the long night of their captivity.”
While King argues that “no one can rejoice at the death or the defeat of a human person,” he said the Biblical passage ultimately symbolizes the death of evil. This, he says, is imminent in the world.
“There is something in the very nature of the universe which ultimately comes to the aid of goodness in its perennial struggle with evil,” King said.
Two years after Brown V. Board of Education and in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, King posits that America has “gradually seen the death of evil” – evil in the form of slavery, of segregation, of systemic racism.
“Evil in the form of injustice and exploitation cannot survive. There is a Red Sea in history that ultimately comes to carry the forces of goodness to victory, and that same Red Sea closes in to bring doom and destruction to the forces of evil,” King said.
“This is our hope. This is the hope and conviction that all men of goodwill live by.”
King closed by offering a plea of compassion:
“Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt, we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.”
Tazewell’s recitation of the speech drew a thunderous applause from the crowd that filled MVNU’s Foster Hall on Monday morning. It seemed to resonate with the audience, which included community members from all walks of life.
Local leaders share their thoughts
Before Tazewell recited one of King’s most famous sermons, several respected community figures spoke.
They shared their thoughts on King’s legacy, as it relates to the theme of the breakfast, which was King’s 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King wrote the book after spending the previous decade entrenched in the Civil Rights Movement. He laid out his thoughts, plans and dreams for America’s future. He advocated for human rights and shared his message of hope.
It was King’s fourth and final book. He was assassinated less than a year later.
Dr. Henry Spaulding, president of Mount Vernon Nazarene University, highlighted King’s emphasis on non-violence. King wrote in his book, “We have a choice today. Non-violent co-existence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be humankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”
“Our challenge today is to consider creative possibilities for constructive and thoughtful engagement,” Spaulding concluded.
Spaulding reminded the audience of the day’s importance – and its purpose.
“It seems to me that MLK Day calls us to remember… but more importantly, to act,” he said. “That is, to creatively and courageously engage the structures of violence and hate with his prophetic imagination.
“The way forward is non-violence, community and faith. More than 50 years after the obscene death of Martin Luther King, the tenacity of the structures of evil persist. I’ve lived long enough, and many of you have, too, to know that structural evil does not magically disappear because we just wish it out of existence. But the legacy of Dr. King reminds us that non-violence, community and faith offer us hope instead of despair.”
Dr. Sean Decatur, president of Kenyon College, called the annual MLK breakfast “one of the most important events on our local calendar.” He spoke about the word “community,” and how it is interpreted in the context of social acceptance.
“When [King] answers the question, ‘Where do we go from here?’, he lays out that the path to community – not community as common zip code, but of a loving community, a society based on justice, equal opportunity and love of one’s fellow human beings,” Decatur said.
“It will require a broad coalition to see that, in his words, ‘The problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.’ The alternative, Dr. King asserted, was to live in chaos.”
Decatur drew comparisons between 2020 and the 1960s, when King was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He reminded those in attendance that history often repeats itself.
“Political and social polarization; communities ravaged by economic displacement and drug crises; a distant war that had raged for years without end in sight…” Decatur said. “Indeed, 2020 may very well be the new 1970.”
King provided a blueprint for dealing with these challenges, Decatur said.
“We can take a lesson from Dr. King’s thoughts as he stared at the abyss of chaos that seemed to be looming. He didn’t despair, he didn’t shrink away from the challenge,” Decatur said. “Despite over a dozen straight years of an exhaustive fight for justice, he responded with energy, with vigor, with urgency, with remarkable clarity and thought.”
Decatur urged those in attendance to embrace what King termed “a divine dissatisfaction” – and to not procrastinate in pushing for change.
“The path ahead is challenging, but we can begin by acknowledging that celebrating our diversity goes hand-in-hand with recognizing our shared humanity – that all of us have an equal right to belong, that our shared experiences of both joy and adversity bring us closer together,” Decatur said. “In other words, ‘Let’s renew our commitment to forming a strong, nourishing, loving community.’”
Mount Vernon Mayor Matt Starr highlighted King’s focus on making communities – and, as a result, the world – a better place. It started – and still starts – at the local level, Starr said.
“I like to think that King had communities in mind when he was talking about this, and when it came to creating actual social change and responsibility,” Starr said. “I see all the headlines in Washington of signing laws and all that, but really I think – I believe in his heart, from what I’ve read and what I have ascertained – is that he had communities in mind. This is where things get done.”
Starr concluded by inviting those in attendance to “dare to dream about the possibilities we can create to overcome the challenges and suffering in our community."
“There are people in our community who are suffering,” he continued, “and we can do something about that. So, let’s dare to dream.”
Gambier Mayor Leeman Kessler emphasized that hatred, white supremacy, and institutional racism take work. The social injustices that still haunt America today did not arrive – or stay – by accident, Kessler said.
“I think it’s very easy for us to think about racism, to think about white supremacy as some sort of natural state – something that happens in the past. We can forget it because it’s just the way things are and it takes work to push past it,” Kessler said.
“But that’s not true. Hatred requires work. Active work. We know that from the way the propaganda was pushed about the Lost Cause myth in order to justify a war to defend chattel slavery. The same Lost Cause myth was used to defend white supremacists’ domestic terrorism for decades. We know it took active work to do redlining. We know it took active work to create sundown towns, to put racial quotas in immigration.
“A good friend of mine is an economic historian and he has a line I think about a lot, which is that there is no place in America that got as white as it did by accident. It took work.”
Because of this, Kessler said it will take work to dismantle.
“You can’t be passive, you can’t just hope it’ll go away,” he said. “We see the work of hatred, the work of racism still at play today, and there’s still a great deal of work left to be done.”
The first step in this work, Kessler posited, is to think about how one defines their neighbors.
“The broader you can define who your neighbor is, the broader you can decide who belongs, the richer a world you’re going to create. And I think that’s the important work that we all have to do – and it is work, it’s hard,” Kessler said.
“It’s taken centuries to build up this racist structure. It may take centuries to tear it down. But that is the work we’ve been given to do.”
Community leaders honored
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Committee also presented the Beulah Apostolic Award of Excellence on Monday. There were two recipients this year – Rev. Josephus and Clara Foster, and Joyce Hogan.
Josephus Foster, who recently passed away, went from being in prison to being a pastor. He and Clara, who married in 1973, began Fountain of Hope Church of the Nazarene in Columbus, which helps at-risk youth find purpose through religion. The Fosters worked with inner-city children to develop self-esteem, as well as positive character and leadership traits. They ran after-school programs and summer camps, among other community outreach efforts.
Josephus graduated from MVNU with a master’s degree in ministry. He served on the university’s Board of Trustees, where his leadership benefited MVNU’s multicultural student recruitment and retention.
Clara is also an MVNU alumna, having earned her bachelor’s degree in business management. She retired from the Ohio Child Care Resource and Referral Association after working for several childcare agencies and after-school programs.
“They’ve served, and Dr. King’s words mirrored their lives,” Legacy Committee member Nanette DuMont said of the Fosters. “He said, ‘Everyone has the power for greatness. Not for fame, but for greatness, because greatness is determined by service.’ And Rev. Josephus and Clara Foster have served.”
Clara accepted the award on Monday. Like King, she said Josephus “had a dream.”
“His dream was to plant greatness in every young person that he met, and that’s why Fountain of Hope was established,” she said. “He developed it and watched it grow for many years, and now we’re able to see those seeds he planted. He planted seeds of greatness in young people. That was his dream – to let everyone know that they have something great inside of them that they can take and use.
“As he planted these seeds, he wanted to see them grow, so that they could make a difference in the world. Make a difference in the community, and then you can make a difference in the world.”
Hogan has long been active in the Knox County community. After graduating from Mount Vernon High School, she obtained a degree from Montefiore Center of Nursing in Bronx, NY. She worked as a nurse at several hospitals in New York and Ohio before retiring from Knox Community Hospital after 33 years of service.
Hogan, who is set to retire from the MLK Legacy Committee next year, is a longtime member of Apostolic Christian Church in Mount Vernon. She currently works with the Knox County Landmark Foundation, Starting Point, and numerous other regional service organizations.
“This is such a blessing – an unexpected blessing,” Hogan said while accepting the award.
Hogan warned that “the struggle continues,” and that 2020 will require a renewed focus from those willing to fight for equality.
“You may not stop fighting for what is right…” she said. “Your vision for 2020 has to be decided – whether we’re a nation that’s going to be divided, or a nation that’s going to be inclusive.”